Saturday, 20 October 2012

Wasps on the window sill

Me with Mum in 1979

Last Saturday I posted a piece with the New Statesman which talked about belief, my atheism and when extremes of belief go very wrong.

Because the piece talked about anti-choice versus pro-choice it drew the eye of some of the members of 40 days for life and there were some pretty vile reactions which targeted me personally.

I wasn't surprised but it did make me reflect on the notion of aggression, which I've found from some determined of their "truth", to be neither  passive or reasoned.

Atheists can be aggressive, so can anyone, but the notion of aggression as being entirely the domain of those who don't believe compared to the long list of aggression perpetrated by those who do, seems too obviously hypocritical to be credible yet it remains a popular notion.

There are many famous atheists, often academics who write at length about theism and the alternative in science. I'm palpably neither academic nor scientist, but that doesn't invalidate my viewpoint nor my own philosophy which I'm offering here.

Anecdotaly the notion of oppression of faith in the UK, by some Christians has been touted pretty effectively. Other faiths are held up as taking precedence and this is neither true nor acceptable. Offered too is the idea that atheists who have no agenda other than a smashing of christian values and an insistence on the debasement of the rights of Christians.

The truth is simply that if you out yourself as an atheist, the response is usually negative.

Telling people that you're an atheist is a tricky thing. In my case I grew up in a country where from my school to my national broadcaster, from birth through to death religion takes precedence and atheism is the "other".

Living in a rural town doesn't help.

When I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought as a child and I went to Sunday school, because I was a child.

Me and my friend Patricia used to head on over to a building which on reflection was probably nine tenths asbestos and we'd clutch our bibles and pray and a lady would bang out some hymns on the piano and me, Patricia, the Sunday school teacher and the piano player would sing our hearts out.

It was all good. This continued for a few years and then, when I was twelve my brother died on Christmas day and my relationship with god hit a bit of a rocky patch.

I woke up at 4am which was the exact moment that Michael died and even though I didn't know anything, I prayed that he wouldn't die. To be exact I prayed that god wouldn't let him die.

I suppose I did it because I had to do something. There were lots of adults who were doing things and there were people coming in and out of the house, and as I felt more than useless and as it was the 70's  I was also less than informed. It was an action borne out of hope and desperation of the unknown and terrifying.

Anyway either god had back to back meetings or something, so he wasn't able to answer that one, or it was nothing celestial at all, but simple human biology that caused my brothers lungs to fill with blood from his heart condition and he drowned.

I didn't speak for 48 hours after he died, the shock apparently.

Anyway that didn't kill my faith it just left me with many more questions that had less to do with the notion of blessings and much more to do with the vengeance side of god. What my brother had done to 'deserve to die' was a mystery to me, but the response was usually something about moving and mysterious and ways.

Anyway I think what it left me with was the idea that humour was a much better companion to me in tough times than fire and brimstone. It's not simply that I'd asked and yet I'd not received, it was more the idea that 'people' like Ian Brady and Myra Hindly were at that time, alive and well and my lovely brother was dead.
If this was a divine choice, a selection, then it was bizarre to me, as a child. As was the perceived comfort from people who told me that only the good die young. Which made me feel worse.

Was I 'bad' now as well as devastated because I was still alive?

Religion still played a part in my life through family. My mum believed in god and was a great example of Christianity gone right. She was quiet about her belief but totally convinced and it was a comfort to her. I respected that and kept my growing conviction of there being no god to myself. When your child dies it wounds in a way which never heals fully. I wasn't going to attempt to question her belief on this nor, would I anyone else.

 The real value of heaven as a comfort to many through bereavement is not something to be sneered at.

I got confirmed because that's what you did. I can remember two clear memories from that. The fact that the vicar had stepped in cat shit for the rehearsal and kneeling at his feet nearly made me throw up on his shoes and the fact that I felt part of something for the actual event.

I got married in church and and had my children christened and was godmother to other peoples children so y'know all good.

Then 5 years ago they told me mum was going to die. Alzheimer's is like that. It can jog along quite happily then suddenly you reach a crisis in the condition and without warning it's critical.

It's hard to put into words what my mum meant to me, but if you've ever known a person who was everything to you, you'll understand my feelings. Put simply she was the calm centre of my life. She offered support unquestioningly when times were tough. She offered laughter and humour when times were stressful and she was a gentle force for good in a world at times dominated by selfish self serving  shit bags.

She'd begun to drift away from me into the darkness of Alzheimer's and I had to make the change from daughter to mother and so when they told me she was dying I panicked.

I was the youngest in my family, the baby and even though I was a mother myself and had been mum's primary carer, the veneer of adulthood evaporates when the shit hits the fan and you revert to the place you knew. I had to find solace, I had to find meaning, I had to know why she was going to die.

I knew why obviously it was human biology again but that was a cerebral pursuit. That was my intellect and quite frankly at that moment, that could go fuck itself because my mum was dying and I was terrified just as I had been when my brother died.

So I went on a spiritual 'journey'. I didn't travel any further than the other side of town but in my head I was embarking on a journey of enlightenment. because I was being a bit of an asshole.

To say I did so in a panic is a bit of an understatement. I spoke to vicars and catholics and nuns and counsellors I scoured the internet and bawled my head off.

Anyway it led me in the end to a very lovely vicar who took the time to make an appointment for me. I pitched up in full panic and I waited for him in his sitting room pacing up and down and staring out of the window. I thought possibly that a good pray with him might put me right, even though I'd stumbled into a country pub one harvest festival and nearly fainted from the claustrophobia of unannounced religion.

Anyway...standing in the Vicar's house looking out of his window I noticed two dead wasps on the windowsill.

I don't like wasps I don't see the point. I'd been pretty badly stung going to get a cricket ball which had landed at the back of the pavilion when I was eight and so those little shits and I had unfinished business. Looking at them lying there I was struck by their place in the history of things. They had lived and then they had died and that was all there was. They had fulfilled their purpose and then they stopped existing. Why should humans expect anything more.

There they were perfect and utterly dead and they represented to me a truth and a light so compelling so unassailable, that I just knew that anything offered by a representative of god would neither change any outcomes for my mum, nor bring me a comfort from the finality of all things.

Because we're all just wasps on a window sill- it's just that I feel that wasps don't expect to be anything more than that it seems to me. They don't expect to be so valuable beyond all other species that they deserve to continue beyond life, unlike some humans.

Mum recovered and carried on her slow decline. I no longer looked for comfort because I now had something better, my own explanation which had nagged at me for the longest time. When the time came to say goodbye to her for the last time last December the comfort I derived from being an atheist served me well. I made sure she had a christian funeral in accordance with her beliefs.

We met the same vicar (with the wasps) and when he offered to say a prayer for us I declined for obvious reasons and popped out for a cigarette. Phil stayed though. Because dear reader  I hate people of faith so much, I married one. (Phil may contend that this was indeed a  revenge of the cruelest inhumanity)

Anyway a few years ago on Twitter, Ed Byrne the comic posted a link which was couched in the finest non pushy terms.I clicked on it because it was so non pushy that I was intrigued. It was a link to the BHA and when I read the words from people like lovely Claire Rayner. It just made total sense. She wrote about everything I'd felt for the longest time and there were many other stories and accounts on there which also eloquently detailed my own feelings.

Being an atheist on twitter is at times very very difficult. I took atheism out of my bio because some people of faith find it personally hurtful that I would not believe what they believe.

That's beyond weird to me, but we're all different. Some Christians are calm and some Christians are assholes some atheists are calm and some atheists are assholes, so that's that then.

The difference is atheists don't try (irrespective of what religious propagandists tell you) to shove their opinions down anyone's throat and more importantly into any woman's womb, or into the sex lives of others, or into schools, or government departments, or into our hospitals, private health clinics,or public broadcasters.

Atheists like me and millions of others who choose to live their lives to a morality of their own making, know that people are not born religious, or homophobic, or sexist, or racist, or disablist. They're made that way.

Unfortunately this blog is the direct result of some religious extremists who visited both my twitter feed and my article determined to instruct me that I'm offensive and wrong and more worryingly to insist that I have no right to express my views.

I believe in the right to choose many things, to some it seems, I only have the right to choose to believe in god.


  1. We all have a right to our own believes and to find comfort in what works for each of us individually. I don't attend Church, though as a child was forced to go to Sunday school each week while my parents lay in bed; I as the rebellious child I was hid on the back of the Sunday School bus until everyone was out of site and then went my own way until time to get back on the bus to go home. I was 11-12 during this time and had already come to the conclusion that a majority of regular church goers where hypocrites. I find comfort in believing in a higher power, whom I call God and that he knows our time on earth from the moment we are born to the time we die and go home (heaven). I do like to express my views and opinions, but I also like to hear others views and opinions and believe they have a right to them.

    Nicky, you are very opinionated and strong in your views and your work as a disability rights campaigner and it doesn't matter your faith, believes, or personal outlook on life; what matters Nicky is that you do an excellent job of looking out and fighting for the rights of disabled people. Keep up the good work and believe, believe in yourself!

  2. Hmm, interesting. It is indeed hard to have a parent be gone long before they die. Sorry you had to go through that. Good luck on your journey.

  3. Lovely and poetically written article, particularly loved the bit about the wasps and how they had served their purpose.

    However when you said "I took atheism out of my bio because some people of faith find it personally hurtful that I would not believe what they believe." I was angered both at the people who hassled you about it and ever so slightly by the fact you felt the need to remove it. My feeling is that if we don't profess our beliefs like any others how are we ever to be seen as normal?

    1. Absolutely and thank you for your kind comment. Atheism is back in my twitter bio :0) Nik x

  4. Thank you for such a good article.

    I was raised an atheist in the bible belt in the 60s, by two atheist parents and a slightly doubting Christian Gramma.

    I was allowed to go to temple or church or revivalist meetings as I wanted to with my friends and create my own understanding of life.

    And I too became my mom's caregiver for the 6 yrs leading up to her death. And protected her from Christian hospice nurses (I just fired them) and from the hospice company itself with its often repeated disclosure that there were ministers for my mom to talk to. She openly hated Christians by that time and I cant say I blame her... she'd run out of patience is all. And her upcoming death was somehow THEIR issue. How rude.

    One nurse mistakenly (upon finding out that we were atheists) exclaimed in horror, "But then, where is the love!?" and then -figuratively- got punted out the front door, never to return. Such amazing gall and open disrespect for others. Im pretty sure the "love" was quite evident in our household for anyone with eyes and an open heart to see.

    And yes I was with my mom when she died here at home. My best friend. My most treasured person ever died in the end. And do you know what happened? She died. And she was gone. And a light went out in my heart. And I grieved deeply and felt a terrible loss and loneliness without her.

    And like all the beloved animals I have had in my life and the farm animals I have had to kill here on the farm... some wonderful unexplainable spirit just disappeared, leaving a body behind.

    And I'm OK with life not being explainable.

  5. Interesting articles Nicky - both of them. I have lost both my parents, relatively young. It's just not fair, is it.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. My parents are very devout hard line Christians and I was raised within a religion which looked for a distant reward and focused on how terrible man and society were in the present. I grew up wih a fear of spirits and god's judgement and now as she comes to the end of her life I see that my Mother hasn't really lived at all. I find the thought of death without afterlife quite frightening in its absoluteness but I can only believe through my life experience and reason that this is all there is for me. However the fear makes me live each day as fully as I can, I am here now experiencing life and all its beautiful, tragic, confusing, mundane and exciting moments and one day I shall take my leave and that is just as it should be. Who wants to live forever? Not me.